Pipelines and Spills: When Your “Best” Isn’t Good Enough

A Husky pipeline has spilled approximately 250 000 litres of oil and diluent into the North Saskatchewan River. Despite clean-up efforts and the placing of booms on the river, the spill has contaminated the water source of the small Saskatchewan cities of North Battleford and Prince Albert, forcing the affected communities to find alternate sources of drinking water for approximately 70 000 people. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall (longtime vocal supporter of oil pipelines and the fossil fuel industry in general) has called the spill and resulting water contamination “a terrible situation,” and says the provincial government wants to see a “complete restoration” of the North Saskatchewan’s ecology.

There have been several questions, fueled by discrepancies in the timeline reports filed by Husky Energy, about whether the company knew about the leak in its pipeline fourteen hours before it turned off the pressure or informed the provincial government. Husky has since claimed that though an “anomaly” was detected on the evening of Wednesday, July 20, and a crew was dispatched to investigate, a leak was not discovered until Thursday morning. Husky may be telling the truth, or they may be covering their asses, but either way, it seems that there certainly has been some failure to properly investigate and respond in a timely manner, especially when the pipeline in question runs beneath a major waterway and source of drinking water.

We also know that pipeline companies are well aware that spills are a “when”, not an “if”, scenario, as evidenced by the oil industry’s lobbying of the Harper government. An example of this is a letter sent in December 2011 to then-Minister of Environment Peter Kent and then-Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver, and signed by the presidents of the Canadian Petroleum Products Institute, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, and the Canadian Gas Association [the letter was obtained by Greenpeace through a request filed under the Access to Information Act]. This letter is essentially a wish-list from the fossil fuel industry, requesting that the Canadian government relax environmental regulations and streamline approval of oil and gas projects (many of these requests later appeared in various pieces of omnibus legislation tabled by the Harper government). The letter minimizes the importance of avoiding environmentally harmful events, preferring to focus instead on “responsible outcomes”. The letter states:

“We believe that the basic approach embodied in existing legislation is out-dated. At the heart of most existing legislation is a philosophy of prohibiting harm; ‘environmental’ legislation is almost entirely focused on preventing bad things from happening rather than enabling responsible outcomes.”

Underlying these ten-dollar words is the basic premise that oil companies know that asking for forgiveness is easier than asking for permission, and that promising to clean up any spills that happen is more realistic than promising (and actually REALLY trying) to prevent “bad things” from occurring in the first place. And if a pipeline spills and the company doesn’t clean it up, well, shucks, they’ll try harder next time. The important thing is, the pipeline’s already there, and they’ve already won.

But let’s put all that aside for a moment. Let’s give Husky Energy the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that Husky monitored their pipeline as best they could and investigated the pressure anomaly thoroughly (though unfortunately, by their own admission, they missed the leak). Let’s assume that the pipe itself was top-of-the-line and well-maintained. Let’s assume that the booms Husky initially used to contain the spill (and which ultimately failed) are the best tools the industry has at its disposal when dealing with events such as this. Let’s assume that Husky’s promise to pay for the entirety of the clean-up is sincere. Let’s assume that Husky has done, and is doing, absolutely EVERYTHING RIGHT to achieve the “responsible outcome” that the co-signees of that Energy Frameworks Initiative letter were promoting.

The leak happened anyway. Containment didn’t work. Clean-up processes will likely be more difficult and lengthy than first thought . And in the heat of the summer, the main source of drinking water for 70 000 Saskatchewan residents (many of whom actually do support pipeline projects and the fossil fuel sector in general), has been contaminated.


In Body and Soul, I’m Always Going Home

Our House (2011 - neither of those cars exist now)

Our House (2011 – neither of those cars exist now)

I am a lucky one. After a recent trip to visit my family in Saskatchewan, I have realized that whether going or coming, whether travelling from Vancouver to the prairie or from the prairie to Vancouver, I am always returning home.

It works like this: I leave the apartment I share with TC, which is home, and get on a plane. My parents pick me up from the airport and take me to the house I grew up in, also known as home. I sleep in my tiny bed in my tiny bedroom and revel in the delicious feeling of being home. At the end of my visit, I wistfully bid my home good-bye and get back on a plane. Several hours later, I reach the door of my home. I sleep in our modest bed in our modest loft and revel in the delicious feeling of being home.

Pretty great, huh?

If they wanted to, I suppose a pedant or a killjoy could point out that I can’t possibly always be going home, especially since one home requires me to have brought a suitcase and one has all my clothes and toiletries in it already. Or, to look at it another way, since one home saw more than 20 years of my life, and the other has been occupied by me for less than two. Perhaps in practice (rather than poetic fancy), my only actual home is in Vancouver, by virtue of my clothes being there, or maybe my only real home is in Saskatchewan, by virtue of the many years I spent there. These observations are valid, but contradictory, and forcing my homes to compete against one another for legitimacy fails to recognize the unique value each home has for me.

Sure, my Vancouver home contains all my stuff (or all the stuff I currently use, at least), but my Saskatchewan home contains all my memories. Sure, my Saskatchewan home sheltered me for more than twenty years, but it is my home with TC (wherever that may be) that will shelter me in my future. If home is where the heart is, and I love both the family I have with my parents and sisters and also my TC (and the potential for a new family that he represents), it is clear my heart is required to be in two places. And it must therefore have two homes.

I realized after completing my BFA that I would likely not be moving back to Saskatchewan. My university friends and colleagues were here in BC, my (mostly imagined) future in the theatre was here, and having never lived or worked in an urban centre in Saskatchewan (where I would likely need to live/work were I to ever return), there were many day-to-day realities of life in a prairie city I would neither recognize nor enjoy. A future in Saskatchewan was, for me, impractical. My future was in BC, and my future home was here also.

But if you want to know where the home of my soul is, where I go to recharge and re-ground myself, I will tell you that it is a brown house in a big yard on the prairie, surrounded by forests and fields and neighbours who’ve known me all my life. I’m an admittedly nostalgic person, but this isn’t just nostalgia, per se, it’s a knowing, deep in my bones, that a certain place belongs to me and I belong to it.

I suspect my sisters feel the same way, which is why we are so aghast whenever my parents renovate the house (designed and built by my dad in the mid-80s). Logically, I understand that 25-year-old carpet should probably be replaced, and I suppose I can’t mind too much when my unused bedroom is re-purposed by my parents for storage and by a particular lazy cat as his favourite place to sleep. I can’t expect my childhood home to remain suspended in time; the house is, after all, a currently occupied (and therefore ever-changing)  place of life and work for my parents, not a museum dedicated to indulging the wistful nostalgia of their children. Sometimes I wonder if my fierce attachments to my recollections of home are somewhat unfair to the actual physical structure, which must bend to reality rather than exist in memory. It’s a lot to ask of a house that it remain the same in every aspect, even as time and weather (and pets) leave their mark on the place, necessitating shocking changes every once in a while, like new shingles and (gasp!) new carpet. I suppose it’s unfair to my parents as well, who have to listen to my griping every time they dare to change their house to suit their needs–the house, after all, that they built and paid for and still live in as their daughters pursue their dreams across the world.

I think my parents should take our attachment to the house and our desire not to see anything changed as a compliment–I imagine when the house was built my parents were hoping to create a home for their family and they succeeded. The truth is, if we had not been so happy we probably wouldn’t care so much. Our home is the stage for our family mythology, a mythology preserved in photographs, Lego sets, favourite old VHS tapes, anecdotes and stories, and yes, in the house itself. Sad as I am to see one home change, I am thrilled by the idea of trying to create such a home and such a happy mythology for my future kids. Isn’t that a wonderful challenge?

Christmas is a Feeling

Saskatchewan, December 2010. Photo credit: Daina Zilans

CHRISTMAS IS COMING, and it’s coming soon. Holy smokes.

Given the utter lack of snow outside and lack of anything resembling a winter solstice (besides the dark) or Canadian wintery-ness in Vancouver, it’s hard to believe the Yuletide season is once again upon us. In these past few years Christmas has just kind of snuck up on me before I was ready. This year it’s been the same story–how can it be Christmas time already? I haven’t made a paper chain yet! I never placed a frantic phone call to one of my sisters to make sure we didn’t get the same things for other family members! I’ve HARDLY “ballet-danced” to the Nutcracker in my apartment! I haven’t been nearly drunk enough! I haven’t watched “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (the animated one narrated by Boris Karloff of course), “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” (narrated by Burl Ives of course), or “Mickey’s Christmas Carol“!

My lack of preparation caused me to be afraid, despite the lovely Christmas parties I have attended, and the many cookies I have prepared and eaten, and the fact that I have now read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, that I somehow wouldn’t be able to get into the Christmas spirit in time to really celebrate the big day (which is December 24, Christmas Eve, for my family). This would have been horrible because Christmas is my absolute favourite holiday, combining so many of the things I love: my family, good friends, good food, good spirits (both emotional and liquid), beautiful music, nostalgia, MAGIC, warmth, pretty sparkly things, snow, and the traditions we have established that make Christmas an incredibly special time for my family. To be out of step with my traditional “getting into the spirit of things” preparations because I have a job now, much less time, and no VCR created a fear in my heart that I wouldn’t be able to give this time the specialness it deserves.

My anxiety was unfounded. Christmas isn’t about watching slightly creepy stop-motion reindeer (though I’ll be digging up that VHS as soon as I get to my parents’ place). Christmas isn’t even about snow (though I’m crossing my fingers for some weather magic). Christmas is a feeling. Christmas is when I can’t stop smiling because I am TOO EXCITED. Christmas is a little light being turned on inside me that makes it possible to feel like a kid again. Christmas is always, every year, an overwhelming feeling of love and gratitude.

And my traditions? They’re important to me. They shape my experience of the holidays and provide me with a sense of continuity year to year. Christmas is a time to hold these old traditions very dear, and I do. But Christmas is also a time for new traditions. For example, this year my TC and I welcomed our friends into our home for our very first Christmas party. Both my TC and I will be spending Christmas apart with our own families this year, so on Monday we also had our own pre-Christmas dinner, and exchanged presents with one another under our own little (sadly fake) tree.

Ribriffic. Happy Alcoholidays!

And did Christmas come to us on December 19? Without snow, or a live tree, or even a day off work? As Dr. Suess wrote, the lack of a few things “didn’t stop Christmas from coming. It came. Somehow or other, it came just the same.” Greek ribs had been in the oven since the afternoon. Potatoes were mashed with cheese and garlic. Granville Island Winter Ale was sipped from novelty glasses that had the word “ALCOHOLIDAYS” printed along the rim. Presents were exchanged, the rabbit was given a carrot, and Jim Henson’s “Muppet Family Christmas” was watched on YouTube.

Our evening was merry and bright, cozy and lovely. Christmassy? Very. There’s something to be said for new traditions.

Our tree is the best. December 2010

But there’s nothing like the old ones. Meeting my family at the airport (my mom is an air-travel-booking magician, so all three of us “kids” usually arrive the same day), a chilly three-hour drive from Saskatoon to my childhood home in the Prairies, fantastic food and drinks with neighbours, sleeping (or trying to) in my tiny old twin bed bathed in the glow of the yard light and listening to the dog howl at Something, being scalded by the shower if anyone else in the house turns on a tap to so much as wash a potato, re-reading all of my childhood favourite books, cross-country skiing, family photos in which we pretend to be rappers or monsters or something, and most importantly, having the BEST CHRISTMAS TREE EVER–these traditions are my Christmas.

My family and I don’t always follow ALL of the traditions and little rituals I’ve assembled in my mind every year, and some of them will likely fall by the wayside over time. One day my sisters and I will have families of our own, and our Christmasses will look different from the ones we have now. It is a loss–observing your Christmas traditions through the frosty panes of a Christmas memory instead of living them year to year–but I am comforted by the idea that my favourite things about Christmas will never be lost. Christmas is a feeling. Year after year, there will be traditions (new or old), there will be family (new or old), there will be love, and there will be much to be grateful for.

And now I’m feeling sentimental. It must be Christmas. I wish you and yours a very merry Christmas, however you love to celebrate, and I wish you the very best and happiest of Christmas feelings.

Photo credit: Daina Zilans

[Note: I did not coin the phrase “Christmas is a feeling”. I remember it from a song performed in the Turtleford School Christmas Concert when I was in Grade 3. I cannot remember what the song or the play was called. I believed it involved the smallest and most humble evergreen in the Christmas Forest conveying the true meaning of Christmas through the aforementioned song. In fact, now that I think of it, the song was probably called “Christmas is a Feeling”. Classic.]